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The Nation

A Chain Letter Links Extended Family

Three generations of Pletchers have stayed abreast of each others' lives since 1916.

September 07, 2003|Russ Bynum | Associated Press Writer

SAVANNAH, Ga. — The fat manila envelope arrives in Doug Pletcher's mailbox every year, stuffed with letters and photographs from uncles and cousins from some 24 branches of his family tree scattered from Florida to California.

Pletcher, of Riverside, Ill., reads through the pile, removes his old letter and writes a new one to bring his relatives up to speed on his marketing work, his two grown children and his softball league.

Then he mails the whole package to the next person in the chain -- a tradition three generations of Pletchers have maintained for 87 years.

"It is a kick to get it," Pletcher says. "Lots of the letters aren't all that riveting -- how the garden's growing and all that. But it's very warm and nice. We're all over the country, and you don't see them very often."

Last month, members of the Pletcher clan got together for a reunion in Savannah, where family members toured the city's oak-shaded squares and took in a minor league baseball game. Some in the youngest generation met for the first time.

The jaunt was Doug Pletcher's prize for winning a $25,000 reunion trip, sponsored by hot dog maker Hebrew National, by writing an essay about his family's long-lived chain letter.

The tradition started in 1916 when Erno Pletcher, his four brothers and three sisters began leaving the family dairy farm in Goshen, Ind., to attend college and start families of their own. The siblings sent letters home to their parents, who bundled them for mailing to each of their grown children in turn.

"They were a close-knit family and they wanted to keep in touch, so they started this letter that had a regular pattern," said 83-year-old Jim Pletcher, of Green Valley, Ariz., one of Erno Pletcher's sons and Doug Pletcher's uncle. "As the families grew, that meant the offspring started to get into the act."

The original eight siblings have all died. The last, sister Opha Pickett, wrote letters for the chain until 1988, when she died at age 100.

For their children, picking up the correspondence habit came easily. The letters were a constant in their lives, said Jim Pletcher, who recalled the bundles arriving as early as 1925, when he was 5.

His cousin, David Pletcher, of Bloomington, Ind., also remembers his parents discussing the letters at an early age.

"My mother said she knew the contents of the closets of all her sisters-in-law because that's all they had to write about -- cleaning the house and all the family doings," he said.

But as the family grew the letters began to form a larger chronicle of the Pletchers' family history through most of the 20th century -- births, graduations and deaths as well as travels, careers and household pets.

Unfortunately, nobody kept the early letters, said David Pletcher, a retired history professor.

"We should have saved them, of course, if we had any historical idea of the value of a family history," he said. "You would have to sift through a great deal of material to winnow out all the interesting parts. But it would be something a social historian would take great pleasure in."

Doug Pletcher entered the contest earlier this year after seeing a newspaper advertisement.

He said the prize money covered travel, lodging and other expenses for 22 people. His two children, ages 22 and 23, were able to meet his uncles Jim Pletcher and Richard Pletcher and their families.

Although none of the family lives in Georgia, he picked Savannah because his daughter became enchanted with the city's Victorian homes and oak-shaded squares while visiting one St. Patrick's Day.

The last family reunion was in 1997, Doug Pletcher said.

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